“Science lets me see, science lets me see, science lets me see things differently.”
That little jingle still reverberates in my head, and likewise, I am sure, in the minds of local fourth- through sixth-graders who also recently experienced Darke County Center for the Arts’ final Arts In Education presentation of this season, Jim McCutcheon’s “Guitarman Does Science.”
After introducing himself by confiding that he first picked up the guitar at age 11 and has continued to play his chosen instrument almost every day for the ensuing 57 years, the Guitarman explained he originally went to college to study physics (the science of everything not covered by biology), but after successfully and happily touring with a band, went back to school and earned degrees in Music as well.
And now, the Guitarman puts science and music together, “singing a happy song, making the world a better place,” and musically extolling the wonder of how and why science works.
Literally helping the youngsters to see things differently, Jim used a camera which projected actions and reactions on a screen for better visibility within the performance space. Students saw the effects of energy transforming to create music from an acoustic guitar—mechanical energy is utilized by fingers moving across the guitar string causing the string to move and the guitar to vibrate; then the air vibrates, creating sound energy which vibrates within the human ear and then, utilizing electrochemical energy, carries to the brain through nerves—and students could see how music is heard.
The frequency of sound waves was explored, first by watching what happens when a rope representing the world’s longest guitar string is smacked and vibrates at different frequencies, then by seeing how the action of a strobe light changes the perception of watching actual vibrations emanating from guitar strings. Next, an oscilloscope was utilized to electrically track frequencies, measured in Hertz and visible on the instrument’s screen; sound waves amazingly assumed different shapes as different sounds were made. A volunteer who likes to sing was recruited and told that the Guitarman “wants to see your voice;” the truth of that strange statement was made clear when the singer, making differing sounds, elicited a wide variety of fascinating sound wave configurations that were visually projected on the screen, inciting astonished gasps from those assembled.
More gasps were heard when the Guitarman whipped out his sparkling red electric guitar, which the students were informed does not make much sound, but makes weak electricity which goes from the instrument to the amplifier where it is strengthened, then transformed by speakers generating air vibrations which make the sound. As Jim performed his final number, all those who play air guitar joined the performance at the artist’s request; a great deal of human energy was generated from the crowd which assembled in front of peers, each participant adding his or her unique contribution to the mix.
The Guitarman skillfully blends his two loves, music and science, to create a memorable learning experience. Throughout his musical career, Jim McCutcheon has never lost his awe at the wonders of science, looking for new ways of seeing and always finding something new to be amazed by. That amazement is transmitted to his audience, as evidenced by overheard remarks from students.
One youngster approached the artist to say, “Give me a high five; that was awesome!” Another youngster leaving the performance enthusiastically confided to a friend, “That was amazing!” once again demonstrating the achievement of DCCA’s goal: enriching lives through the arts.